August in Albania is the time for pushim, or vacation/ break/ rest, when everyone closes shop and moves to the beaches. The days are long and hot; work is on a standstill for the month, heck even the electricity takes pushim! (In Gjirokastёr, daily from 9-2, conveniently during working hours…) We’ve been puttering around in the south, climbing the steep hills of Gjirokastёr routinely as tour guides for the many couchsurfers that come through in the summertime (more Chris than me, he is the tourism guy after all). Chris is working on getting more signs posted around town that indicate which road to take to the castle (in English and possibly German), where to find a public restroom or the Old City, and perhaps a long term goal of street signs or numbers or any sort of indicator of one’s location on a map.
A few weeks ago I met up with a group of health volunteers in Elbasan to assist conducting a life skills class at an English camp, where once per week the focus is health lessons. With the students we discussed HIV/AIDS myths, history, and associated stigma, which I think went over pretty well. The next morning we went to the Roma Community Center to talk about the importance of personal hygiene; afterward I taught the kids how to make those paper doohickies (I’ve also heard called “cooties”) that sit on your thumbs and middle fingers, and when you pinch together and apart you can open up the flaps to reveal a dare or whatever you have written. We had the kids write down things they can do to stay healthy, such as ‘brush my teeth’, ‘comb my hair’, and ‘wash my hands’, and then they would act out whichever command the flap revealed. I really enjoyed seeing the center because the Roma people and especially children are so discriminated against, not only in Albania but the entire world and especially Europe, and this place provides a great opportunity for them to grow and play in a safe environment.
It was fun getting caught up on each other’s new lives in our new towns, discussing what we have (or have not yet) gotten accomplished and how we all feel about it, challenges and suggestions, and of course eating the city’s best gelato that had won our hearts and stomachs during training!
Eventually, I caught a furgon with another volunteer, heading over the mountains to Tiranё, though it was a very painful experience because I’d been feeling very nauseas and the bumpy, winding, hour-and-45-minute journey (that felt like 3 hours) only made it much worse. Alissa continued on to Shkoder while I went to the apartment of a friend who is working at the embassy and crashed on his couch for an afternoon nap. This friend is actually an ASU student who we had met here in Albania, he joined in on some Peace Corps events and we learned that he lives only a few blocks from our old Tempe house on Maple St.
Chris came in later that evening; together we all went to the Steven’s Center, a Peace Corps legend, which is an American-run restaurant, serving burgers and fries, some Mexican entrées, soups and salads… all in English! I couldn’t yet eat food for fear that it wouldn’t stay down, but I’ve made a date with a chocolate milk shake in my future…
Arlene’s plane arrived late at night; we picked her up in the car (“American Ford Escalade, nothing but the best!”) of a friend of my counterpart, who is an extremely friendly Albanian man working in Tiranё. She passed through customs near midnight, and we arrived back at the apartment of our ASU friend around 1 or so. Chris and his mom stayed up for a few hours after I passed out, excitedly catching up on her week-long Germany trip, studying maps, and plans for our 3 weeks together in Albania… (two peas in a pod)
In the morning we rented a small Volkswagen, an expensive venture here in Albania that I don’t recommend to future visitors, and together we began the journey back over the mountain towards Elbasan. We had plans to stay the night with our host family, the Çepa’s, in the village of Thanё, which was both wonderful and exhausting merely for the need to translate. In her luggage Arlene brought some photos from Costco that I had taken on our last night with the family, then uploaded online for her to pick up in Pennsylvania, and we gathered in the sitting room to browse through and reminisce. A few times while we lived together they had proudly shown me a small stack of prized prints from various vacations they have taken at the beach or in the snow, and some scattered shots of Mamai as a communist Youth Brigade and as a young nusё (bride), so I’m really glad we could expand their collection and add some photos of our time together and that show the girls as beautiful young women. Later we were taken via Babai’s furgon to a neighboring village to visit our gyshja and her family--- ahh brings back the many memories of such trips “out visiting”: sitting for coffee or juice while they grill us with questions and pleasantries in Shqip. Arlene loved it—and they loved her. The family proudly showed off their gardens, both houses in the split family compound, many animals, and even a new sprinkler system!
After such an evening we went home for a traditional late night feast—and I mean late, they began to set the table chock full of food and the fine china (so to speak) at 11 pm. So many nights we had done the same, sitting on our hands and wondering ‘when oh when will we eat?’ But overall the evening was fantastic; the Çepa’s were so happy to meet Arlene and did everything they could to make us as happy and comfortable as possible. In the morning we slept late and shared a second feast for brunch, then packed up the car with some bags of vegetables they let us pick from the garden (generosity never ends in Albanian culture), then set off for the long, wild road to Gjirokastёr.
We spent a few days in the south, showing off our town and house to Arlene and making day trips to sites around the town such as the beautiful pristine spring of Syri i Kalter (The Blue Eye), the castle in Libohovё and (though we never found it) historic church in Labovё, and the ancient ruins of Butrint.
The once-thriving city center of Butrint has been inhabited for centuries, though it officially dates to the 4th century BC as a sanctuary honoring the Greek god of medicine and healing, Aesclepius. The ruins (and much of the south of Albania) used to be considered Greek territory, and it is believed that Butrint is mentioned in the Aeneid, described as a place where Aeneas stopped on his way home from Turkey. The city was rebuilt several times by various empires, including the Romans who expanded the town to include numerous fountains, mosaics, bath houses, gymnasiums, an amphitheatre, and an aqueduct, occupying the region until at least the 6th century. For now, it remains a sleepy, well-labeled set of crumbling monuments hidden amongst cyprus and olive trees, and bathed in the majestic light and air of a soothing Mediterranean Sea breeze.
We decided to take Arlene up the coastal road to Dhёrmi, one of Albania’s few accessible beaches still unspoiled by mass development. I’m astounded to hear people suggesting a trip to Sarandё, which is a small bay near the Greek island of Corfu. Though considered the ‘pearl’ of Albania’s beaches, Sarandё is now a hideous mess of unfinished concrete hotel sky-rises that overlook a beach so full of umbrellas the sand is no longer visible. I am told that it resembles some parts of southern Italy and maybe Spain in the 1970’s, which leaves me both confused and horrified. Peace Corps sent us official warnings not to go in the ocean there because the University of Tiranё conducted tests that revealed dangerously high levels of e-coli in the water, due to the dozens of hotels and restaurants that simply dump their waste directly there into the bay…! So, needless to say I avoid Sarandё like the plague.
Dhёrmi, however, is beautiful, and after a late lunch stop in the Porto Palermo restaurant overlooking one of Ali Pasha’s many castles, we were able to find a quiet cove to plant ourselves and jump in the crystal clear water before the sun set. Unfortunately, development is quickly catching up— even in the month since we went last we noticed two more large restaurants had been built out over the water. Such a shame!
We slept on the beach, comfortable except for the chilly ocean breeze we hadn’t properly prepared for. I woke in a delirious daze that I always seem to have after camping, turning over in the bright morning light, confused by the splashing of the waves and shouting voices of excited Albanian families.
The drive up to Dhёrmi is pretty horrendous, and I must give props to Arlene for braving the winding, unpaved, narrow road along cliff’s edge. To drive north of Dhёrmi requires climbing an unending series of switchbacks up a steep, rocky mountain. The passenger view is amazing, gazing down at isolated stretches of sand, as of yet impossible to access and untouched. We stopped at a café on the top of the mountain, taking in a cool breeze before winding down the other side toward the beach city of Vlorё.
Vlorё is a typical Mediterranean beach city, built up with hotels, restaurants, apartments, all striving to be larger than life. There are 2 volunteers living there, though the girl from our group happened to be out of town so we crashed on the bunk beds of a veteran from G10. Enver Hoxha’s dilapidated and graffitied mansion sits out at the edge of a cliff, and is now a popular cliff jumping location. We found the water to be much dirtier than Dhёrmi, so none of us ventured in, but instead spent the evening xhiroing (promenading) through the crowded streets and finally eating a late dinner at a restaurant across from the beach. Our waiter was super nice, but toward the end seemed to forget completely about us as we waited to pay, and then made it up 45 minutes later by rushing to bring us free cakes of whipped topping and an elaborate fruit platter, sweet!
From Vlorё we drove to Berat, which is in a valley in the middle of the country. Just outside town there is a beautiful winery owned by two brothers who had lived in Italy for 10 years, and now make delicious wines called Çobo. If you ever see it in the market, try it! Lauren and Marissa, the two volunteers in the town, gave us a tour of Berat through the xhiro, which is the most spectacular xhiro in any city I’ve seen so far. The roads were closed off and it seemed everyone was out, dressed to the nines and strutting their stuff up main street; the event was popular without seeming overcrowded. In the morning a friend of theirs gave us a tour of Berat’s fabulous castle and museum, which ended up lasting 4 hours. The castle remains are mostly just the walls and a few churches, but what is most impressive is that many families live in the old stone homes inside the fortress, just like they used to, so it still feels like an medieval city of cobblestone streets and grapevines. Under the castle are two very crowded neighborhoods that give Berat its nickname “City of a Thousand Windows” because (you guessed it) the homes have so many windows, creating a very picturesque effect. Berat, which has only very recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a far more advanced grasp of tourism than Gjirokastёr; they seem overall more sign-friendly and organized, so Chris will be working closely with them to hopefully build a mutually beneficial relationship. For example, there is a British man who is building a youth hostel in one of Berat’s historic neighborhoods, and we’re hoping he’ll let us post a bulletin board of things to see/do and where to eat/sleep in Gjirokastёr, and vice-versa in the tourist center of GJ.
Next stop on the tour: Shkodёr, the Italian cultural capital of the north. We were surprised at how much better the roads became near to and above Tiranё, like actual paved highways, a rare treat. I am technically visiting town on business leave, helping another volunteer with some life skills classes at another English-language summer camp, which will hopefully go as well as the last one. Until next time--- ;)